Americans in Paris

At the insistence of a friend, I have been reading a David McCullough book The Greater Journey, Americans in Paris (2011). It did not sound interesting to me but I was hooked by the time I had read the first page. Here it is:

They spoke of it then as the dream of a lifetime, and for many, for all the difficulties and setbacks encountered, it was to be one of the best times ever. They were the first wave of talented, aspiring Americans bound for Paris in what, by the 1830s, had become steadily increasing numbers. They were not embarking in any diplomatic or official capacity–not as had, say, Benjamin Franklin or John Adams or Thomas Jefferson, in earlier days. Neither were they in the employ of a manufacturer or mercantile concern. Only one, a young writer, appears to have been in anybody’s pay, and in his case it was a stipend from a New York newspaper. They did not see themselves as refugees or self-imposed exiles from an unacceptable homeland. Nor should they be pictured as traveling for pleasure only, or in expectation of making some sort of social splash abroad. They had other purposes–quite specific, serious pursuits in nearly every case. Their hopes were high. They were ambitious to excel in work that mattered greatly to them, and they saw time in Paris, the experience of Paris, as essential to achieving that dream–though, to be sure, as James Fenimore Cooper observed when giving his reasons for needing time in Paris, there was always the possibility of “a little pleasure concealed in the bottom the cup.”

The book proper contains about 450 pages. It is not historical fiction, although it reads like a good novel, full of accounts of intertwined lives of historical figures and events that are recognizable to anyone who knows much 19th century American history and art. ( I discovered I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did). What makes the book most interesting is the conversations and thoughts of those individuals based on their own writing and journals. There are almost 60 pages of source notes.

It was fun for me to get an inside glimpse of so many people I learned about in school, and artists whose work I have seen and admired in person. Here is a partial list of the people included: James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel F.B. Morse (did you know he aspired to be a portrait painter?), Charles Sumner, Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Winslow Homer, P.T. Barnum (and Tom Thumb), Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Adams, Henry James, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

The person who made the most impression on me was someone I did not know, Elihu Benjamin Washburne, who had been appointed as minister to France by President Ulysses S. Grant. Washburne served heroically during the Franco-Prussian War, chosing to stay and help in spite of being given permission to return home. He commitedly kept a daily diary of the entire war, a valuable document today.

So, I enthusiastically recommend this book.

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